Filmmaker Alastair Layzell artfully entwines profound tragedy and professional triumph in “One PM Central Standard Time,” a fascinating documentary that details how the “story of the century” — the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy — was covered by up-and-coming anchorman Walter Cronkite and his CBS News team. Layzell is scrupulously respectful of Kennedy and Cronkite, and offers eloquent testimonials from intimates and admirers of both icons. But his film is as much a gripping drama as it is a nostalgic tribute, treating history as breaking news in a manner that fuels the narrative momentum with a sense of urgency.
Indeed, it’s very likely that, unlike many other similar tributes that are proliferating as we approach the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination, “One PM Central Standard Time” will have a long shelf life in various home-screen platforms — and as a teaching tool on college campuses for history, journalism and communications studies courses — after limited theatrical play.
Layzell vividly evokes the zeitgeist of 1963 with pertinent archival photos and footage — including several digitally restored snippets that appear startlingly fresh — and interviews with such notables as Dan Rather, Robert MacNeil, Bob Schieffer and Bill Clinton. Former UPI reporter Bill Hampton remembers Dallas having an early-‘60s reputation as “the hate capital of the world,” implying that the liberal-leaning JFK was more or less walking into the lion’s den when he made his Nov. 22 visit.
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At the same time, other interviewees recall, Kennedy was widely viewed by many Americans (including quite a few in Dallas) as a celebrity of rock-star proportions. Just as important, he enjoyed largely favorable coverage from a press corps top-heavy with journalists who could empathize with the robustly youthful commander-in-chief. In 1963, narrator George Clooney pointedly notes, Kennedy and Cronkite, both WWII veterans, were exactly the same age: 46.
Layzell focuses primarily on the fateful intersection of these two American lives. On Nov. 22, 1963, Cronkite was scarcely 19 months into his job as anchor of the CBS nightly newscast (which had expanded from 15 to 30 minutes just two months earlier). And while he had already earned the respect of viewers and peers, he was a long way from being lionized as “the most trusted man in America.” With nary a trace of cynicism or sensationalism, this documentary advances the notion that Cronkite began his elevation to living legend at precisely the moment he reported Kennedy’s death to millions of shocked Americans.
“One PM Central Standard Time” — the officially designated time of Kennedy’s demise at Parkland Hospital — gradually builds in intensity and accelerates in pace as it recounts the moment-to-moment rush of events between the firing of shots in Dealey Plaza and Cronkite’s somber on-air announcement. Journalists who actually were on the scene in Dallas remember their frantic jockeying for any scrap of info from attending doctors and tight-lipped Secret Service agents. (Lee Harvey Oswald is referenced sporadically; assassination conspiracies go unmentioned throughout the entire pic.) Meanwhile, back in New York, Cronkite had to deliver his initial news bulletins as an offscreen voice accompanying a title card, because vacuum tubes in the only available newsroom camera needed close to a half-hour to warm up.
Layzell — who collaborated with Cronkite on two documentaries not long before the celebrated newsman’s death in 2009 — relies on dramatized re-creations to depict the barely contained chaos behind the scenes at CBS News headquarters as Cronkite’s staffers checked and rechecked incoming reports before reporting JFK’s death. Purists may quibble about the appropriateness of such gimmickry, but there’s really nothing in these segments that undermines or cheapens the true-life drama. It’s only on those infrequent occasions when the soundtrack swells with obtrusively thunderous music that the documentary seems at all heavy-handed.
“One PM Central Standard Time” strikes a delicate balance between lamenting the much-too-early loss of JFK — who, according to interviewees, was on the verge of ending the Cold War when he was cut down — and celebrating the achievements of Cronkite. It’s much to the film’s credit that, even amid the celebrating, melancholy notes are sounded.
Current NBC anchor Brian Williams notes that TV news coverage has changed dramatically — and perhaps not for the better — since the days when Cronkite told viewers about the way it was. “I fear he took the best of the business with him,” Williams says of Cronkite, “because it’s never been the same without him.”
Without making the claim in so many words, Williams strongly implies there no one working in cable or broadcast TV news today who could report such a monumental tragedy with the gravity and authority Cronkite evinced on Nov. 22, 1963. “On that day,” Williams says, “he was our dad.”